11/16/2012 11:17 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Marriage Equality and the Echo of History's Losers

In the wake of landmark election victories for the marriage equality movement -- gay rights were affirmed in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington -- opponents are doubling down on the rhetoric that led to their defeats. Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage said his anti-equality group considered the 2012 results a "wake-up call" that will be answered with renewed effort. In Rome, Fr. Federico Lombardi, head of Vatican television and radio, called the poll results "worrying events" in a liberalizing trend that "does not cease to amaze."

Both the Church and NOM are also re-affirming their basic arguments against equal rights. Lombardi used "Pandora's Box" rhetoric, asking, "Why not contemplate also freely chosen polygamy and, of course, not to discriminate, polyandry?" Brown, speaking on National Public Radio, complained that the civil rights of traditionalists are threatened by laws that would "marginalize the idea that marriage is the union of a man and a woman and really hurt individuals and organizations who stand up and proclaim the truth about marriage." Brown also claimed that "nature" opposes marriage equality, and favors his view.

In these arguments we can hear the echoes of history's losers. Consider, for example, the struggle over voting rights for women. In that case opponents said women were inferior by nature and therefore undeserving. They too predicted that ending discrimination would lead to terrible new problems including the end of the human race. Instead, half the nation was allowed full participation in political life, bringing to it great new energies and ideas.

The pattern was repeated in the fight over civil rights for African Americans. As he defended segregation Senator Josiah Bailey of North Carolina referred specifically to Pandora and, like Fr. Lombardi, predicted that equality would lead to trouble. Other opponents of equal rights, like Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, declared segregation to be in the natural order of things, while Willis Robertson of Virginia said civil rights advocates were trying to defy the will God. Of course, the end of segregation and the advent of equal rights ennobled the nation and did not bother God at all.

Today, although the precedents are clear, opponents of marriage equality have trouble recognizing them and grasping their implications. Brown, of the National Organization for Marriage, insisted his side lost because it was out-spent and out-organized, and that these deficiencies can be corrected. L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, editorialized that the Church would continue the fight "as the lone critic of modernity, the only check ... to the breakup of the anthropological structures on which human society was founded."

As the editors at L'Osservatore must surely know, human society is continually evolving and in the process has trimmed many "anthropological structures," such as slavery, from its form. In this case, the developed world is ending discrimination and offering the privileges and benefits identified with marriage to people who were previously excluded. No group, religious or otherwise, will be forced to change its private practices because of these laws. They can choose to bless some unions, and not others. But in the eyes of the law, all marriages will be equal, and when religious organizations act outside the spiritual realm, they will be expected to conform.

In the United States, religious beliefs range widely, and the country has always made room for faiths that vary from the norms established by civil law. Even today, the private lives of many Christians are guided by beliefs that place greater authority in the hands of men. A few even cling to the notion that Whites are racially superior. Both of these concepts were once widely held, and exerted great influence. Few of us regret that they no longer enjoy such power.

Today, the old fashioned religious view of marriage is going the way of former orthodoxies about race and gender. If polls about the attitudes of the young are accurate - most can't see what the fuss is all about -- the change will likely be completed in a generation. Fr. Lombardi, Brian Brown and their allies will be regarded as the Josiah Baileys of their time, and the rest of us will consider which of our other "anthropological structures" should next be reconsidered.